Robo-chefs, meatless burgers that bleed, grubs, bugs and 3D-printed dinners may sound like the culinary imaginings of a Ridley Scott film set in the future but, as it transpires, we may well be on the way to cooking, dining and eating in a dramatically different fashion sooner than expected.
By the year 2050, the Earth’s population is set to hit 9 billion, up from our current and already unsustainable 7.7 billion. According to a recent food report released by the United Nations, an estimated 124 million people in 51 countries across the globe are currently facing food crises. The report cites the main causes as conflict and climate shocks, the latter occurring with alarming frequency and intensity.
With the planet’s resources, including water and land for agriculture, swiftly being eaten away, scientists and leading thinkers are coming up with new ways to feed the extra mouths we’re expecting in the next 30 years. Our growing dependency on dwindling resources and industrialised agriculture is what’s contributing to the climate change that’s devastating our food supplies. “More than half of the ice-free land on Earth and more than a quarter of freshwater is used to raise livestock and their food, making animal farming a leading cause of species extinction and global warming,” says a spokesperson from Impossible Foods.
Founded in 2011 by former Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick O Brown, Impossible Foods develops sustainable solutions to the impending global crisis. It is also the group behind the Impossible Burger. Made from water, plant proteins, coconut oil and heme – the molecule attributed to carrying oxygen in our blood – the burger sizzles, smells and cooks just like beef. Brown found that the heme myoglobin is what gives beef its characteristic taste, smell and cooking attributes. It also happens to be extractable from plants such as soy.
Impossible Foods is determined to reduce the number of animals used for food, which would then free up land and water, in turn mitigating climate change. Animal farming is a major contributor to global warming and loss of biodiversity. The explosive growth of animal agriculture and overfishing has played a dominant role in wiping out half the world’s population of wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the past 40 years.
The company notes that compared to a patty made from cows, an Impossible Burger uses 20 times less land, a quarter of the water, and produces an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based "meats", then, are bound to be crucial when it comes to getting our fill of protein in the near future. Another San Francisco start-up, New Wave Foods, does a plant-based shrimp product, and there are also alternatives to fish, cheese and chicken.
However, Dr Stuart Farrimond, food science specialist, author and presenter, cautions against getting too excited or relieved. "Lab-grown meat offers the promise of an ideal solution, but is likely to come up against a lot of opposition. Let's face it, how many people will jump at the chance to eat something grown in a Petri dish?" he says, nodding instead to insect flours as a likely protein alternative to faux meats, which we're already seeing in many products.
Insects as food
Available to buy online, for example, are Cricke crackers made from crickets, which are known for their slightly nutty flavour. The United Kingdom-based start-up also has a tortilla chip product on the way. According to Crické's Francesco Majo, producing a kilo of beef takes about 22,000 litres of water, compared to only 10 litres for the same quantity of farmed crickets. He adds that the best way to convince people to eat insects is to powder them down and present them in a more digestible (read: less insectlike) form.
However, another UK-based group, Eat Grub, is much bolder in its product presentation, leaving a transparent section across its packaging, all the better to see the mealworms, grasshoppers and buffalo worms waiting to be devoured inside. This is not altogether shocking, given that insects already form part of the traditional diet of at least 2 billion people, with 1,900 insect species currently being used as food.
"Insects are not merely 'famine foods' eaten in times of food scarcity, or when purchasing and harvesting conventional foods becomes difficult; many people around the world eat insects out of choice, largely because of the palatability of the insects and their established place in local food cultures," reads the United Nation's Edible Insects – Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security report.
What's in store for the future
If the prospect still sounds less than appetising, rest assured there are other more exciting hypotheses for what’s to come to our kitchens. “Innovation in robotics has a real wow factor,” says Farrimond, referencing the robo-chef that will soon come to the market, complete with two arms for all your kitchen prep – chopping, frying, flipping –plus precision beyond the abilities of us mere mortals.
The food science specialist also promises other technological advancements such as 3D-printed food for "immaculately delicate dishes crafted with textures and appearances that would be impossible to make with human hands". Ultimately, according to Farrimond and LinYee Yan, editor of the magazine Mold: Designing the Future of Food, the next decade will see the developed world shopping for food with an increasing sense of conscientiousness.
“We will transition from being mere consumers to being active participants in creating a new food ecology that is accessible to everyone,” says Yan.
Faux burger with a side of mealworm, anyone?